This Year's Flu Season Could Come Early & Here's What You Need To Know

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This year may not be the one to procrastinate on getting your flu shot, as experts are already predicting a nastier and longer flu season, according to a recent report from Popular Science. In fact, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that flu season usually starts in early winter, the agency's latest influenza surveillance data suggests that the “official” flu season may already be underway. But, why is an earlier flu season cause for concern?

This year's earlier flu season is worrisome because — depending on when most people will get their flu shots, how long it takes for those shots to be effective, and when this flu season will come to an end — it's going to be harder for health experts to make sure everyone is protected. And because it's notoriously difficult for health researchers to predict the timing, severity, and length of any flu season, it's almost impossible to match the strain of flu used for the vaccine to the strain will actually cause most people to become ill — which makes tackling an earlier and perhaps harsher flu season all the more difficult.

Also, which is perhaps the most alarming, considering the fact that Australia's flu season was so bad likely due to a mismatched vaccine, it might be a strong indicator for what will happen over here in the United States — especially because "we’re both using the exact same vaccine," as Popular Science reported.

And because the virus changes so much and so often, it's tricky to predict which vaccine to use. In fact, Popular Science health reporter Sara Chodosh recently wrote in a separate story, that the World Health Organization has to wait until the February before the flu season begins to give pharmaceutical companies guidance on which flu shot to make. And that still gives the virus a full six months to evolve.  

World health officials tend to pay even closer attention to tiny changes in a range of markers to determine when and how hard flu season will hit. And according to Popular Science's report this week, at least one of those markers — the number of flu-related illnesses reported to the CDC each week — went above the baseline during the week of Thanksgiving.

In her interview with Popular Science, Lynnette Brammer, head of the CDC domestic surveillance team for influenza, explained that there's been an “early uptick” in people with flu symptoms and that even with the rise in cases, it’s just too early to tell whether more people will get sick this year, or if it means a shift in when this flu season will hit its peak.

But if doctors are already seeing more people with fever, chills, and other nasty flu symptoms, that could mean that your odds of getting a head start against potential flu exposure have just gone way down. According to the CDC, the ideal time to get the flu shot is in early October, before the disease starts to spread in most communities in the United States. That’s because the benefits of the flu shot don’t kick in right away, according to the CDC. In fact, it can take up to two weeks after getting the vaccine for your body to develop the antibodies for full protection, the CDC reported.

In other words, if you haven’t already gotten the flu shot, you need to get one ASAP because you may already be at greater risk of getting the flu. And while the CDC reports that for most people that means a mild to moderate bout of illness that lasts for around 10 to 14 days, for others, it’s way more serious. Babies and children under 5 years old are especially at risk of developing complications from the flu such as bronchitis and pneumonia, according to government health experts, as are the elderly, pregnant women, and people who have other chronic medical conditions like asthma.

In a series of tweets on Monday, the CDC reminded followers that while the ideal window for getting the flu shot may have closed, there are still very good reasons to get the vaccine as soon as possible, and for doctors and pharmacies to continue offering the vaccine for as long as possible. "Vaccination should continue throughout flu season, even in January or later," the agency tweeted.

So, yes, flu season may already be upon us and it might not be a great sign for the rest of the winter that people are getting sick so early in the season. But, for those who haven’t gotten a flu shot already, now is probably the time to get one. And even though Australia's vaccine was reportedly mismatched and researchers are pointing to its pattern, that's no excuse not to get the flu shot. As STAT put it: "Remember, flu is unpredictable. The season is starting — that’s clear — but the distribution of circulating viruses could still change."

Right now, there really is no way to know how closely — or how mismatched — the shot is to the strain of flu that will hit here in the United States. That's why it's important to remember that some protection really is better than none in this case, especially since that means protecting those who are too young or sick to get the vaccine themselves.

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